UN Women Advocate Anya Thakur Shining a Light on Diversity: How The Desai Foundation is bringing India to NYC
The Desai Foundation, an organization passionate about championing women’s empowerment, recently brought India to New York City, spreading its message and turning Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, into an opportunity to celebrate culture and togetherness. The event was attended by hundreds, both celebrities, change-makers and those who wanted to support “every child’s right to dream.”
We “want every girl and woman we serve to know that she has the ability to dream beyond their circumstances. And we hope the foundation there is that we have empowered her to cultivate enough dignity to believe that she is worth more,” as Megha Desai, founder of The Desai Foundation, and I discussed. “She deserves an education, respect, a healthy life, medical care, a job if she wants one, to chose her destiny,” Desai said.
Building connections is a powerful way to expand advocacy networks — and it’s how I discovered The Desai Foundation.
“Anya, I am in AWE of your story and the work you do with ShePower!” The Desai Foundation’s Zoey Gulmi, founder of Gulmi Consulting, reached out to me to say, inviting me to cover their story. “With that in mind, I wanted to follow up on The Desai Foundation and the work they do as I’m confident you will find it as inspiring as we find you!”
ShePower, a global organization I founded in partnership with MetoWe and We Movement to empower and uplift women and girls worldwide and in underserved areas such as rural India, shares The Desai Foundation’s goal to further equality and build a better and brighter future for millions of women and girls.
“Thank you, Anya!” Gulmi enthused when I wrote back. “What an honor, that is AMAZING news!”
The Desai Foundation empowers women and children through community programs to elevate health and livelihood in India & the United States. To date, the foundation has helped over 387,000 people in the United States and India #DreamBeyond their circumstances.
Through initiatives like Pledge your Period and Asani Sanitary Napkin Program as featured in Glamour to their “Fashion with a purpose” collection with renowned designer Payal Singhal, as seen in Forbes and Vogue, which provides women with employment opportunities in rural India through their vocational sewing program and financial independence, gives them a sense of purpose and adds value to their lives, The Desai Foundation hopes to “make a big impact while cultivating dignity.”
This year on Wednesday marked their fifth year as a public foundation and fifth year hosting Diwali on the Hudson. Year after year, the event has been attended by New York’s movers, shakers, celebrities and business moguls including the likes of Jay Sean, Kirk Douglas of The Roots, Payal Kadakia, internationally acclaimed singer Falu, and a host of others.
It’s a fitting event for the Desai Foundation, which works to shed light on every woman and every child’s right to dream.
This year the foundation is expanding their work to over 200 villages in Gujarat and Rajasthan and to communities like Baruch, Vasta, and Bardoli. These fundraisers are a valuable opportunity to raise awareness and funds for their programs such as Asani Sanitary Napkins, Kids Health Camps, and vocational training.
The Desai Foundation hopes the “festival of Diwali conveys the message of brotherhood and unity and allows the foundation to invite people from all walks of life to celebrate light.”
What follows is my exclusive interview with The Desai Foundation’s founder Megha Desai on global empowerment and our shared journey to uplift women and people worldwide.
Q: How can people support The Desai Foundation’s initiatives and champion women’s empowerment and culture?
Q: What inspired you to start The Desai Foundation?
A: While on a family vacation in Machu Picchu, Peru — in this cradle of civilization — we started thinking about the impact that generations before has made on this planet. We started thinking about the skills and the passions we had — and the type of impact we wanted to make. And through this discussion — we decided to focus on health, education, community and culture.
Over the many years we have shifted our focus to impact women and children through health and vocational training (which includes education). Our work expanded from one or two community centers serving around 25 villages to currently working 200 villages, and in a couple months — we will likely be in 300 villages. We are committed to cultivating dignity for everyone we serve — both in India and the US.
Q: What has the most rewarding moment been for you throughout this journey and all the programs you have championed?
A: Oh wow, I have no idea. I am generally the type of person that tends to celebrate the smaller moments rather than the big ones. I have generally found myself celebrating a single woman whose life we changed. But if I had to pick it would be when we started to get calls from all over India for our Asani Sanitary Napkin program. It meant that our model was working and that we had really changed the game.
Another would be the expansion of our Bal Health Mela program. This program is shockingly efficient and has such a dramatic impact on the kids and the parents it serves. I guess I am proud of both programs for the same reason — our incubation of these ideas, iterating to make them a success and subsequent ability to scale these programs is what I am incredibly proud of.
Q: If you could impart a message to all the women you hope to reach, what would it be?
A: You are worth more. We want every girl and woman we serve to know that she has the ability to dream beyond their circumstances. And we hope the foundation there is that we have empowered her to cultivate enough dignity to believe that she is worth more. She deserves an education, respect, a healthy life, medical care, a job if she wants one, to chose her destiny.
Q: Why do you feel our work is crucial at this time in uplifting communities globally?
A: We are really proud of our model. And we hope that organizations learn from it. Community Development isn’t just about one part of a girls life — she must go to school, and be healthy, and have sanitary napkin products, and have supportive parents, etc. That is why we focus on incubating a variety of holistic programs that work together to uplift an entire community. We are actually in discussions right now about expanding our programs to not only more regions in India, but possibly across the way to Africa.
I think the non-profit community shouldn’t be scared of failing — if you are experimenting you are going to fail sometimes! Try new things and expand!
Also, don’t be scared to measure what you know is the most important thing for each community. We often are criticized that not all of the women that take our vocational programs take the jobs immediately. In fact, our [retention] is low. That is because we were in very conservative rural areas — where this is simply not possible for the women we serve. What we do measure? That nearly all the women FINISH the course, that all the women feel better about themselves after the course, and that most of the women report that one of the top outcomes of the program for them was making a friend outside their immediate family. For us, these outcomes are even more valuable than just an increase in HHI.
Hopefully our work can have an impact on not only CBOs on the ground, but also large funding organizations to think differently about how they are investing their money and the outcomes they are expecting.
Q: Tell me about Diwali on the Hudson. How did it get started, what are you most proud of about it? What are your favorite moments over the years and how does it help the DF efforts?
A: We started Diwali on the Hudson because we noticed that Diwali was really a holiday that most people celebrated at home. We wanted to open it up so not only did we celebrate it together, but we also put it on the map to the rest of the non-South Asian population in the states. Diwali is celebrated by more than a billion people in the world — let’s be sure we celebrate it here in the states! Our events are highly diverse!
It helps the work because every single dollar raised goes directly to the work on the ground. I am the most proud that we get to celebrate incredible South Asian women. In the past we have featured Payal Kadakia’s Sa Dance Company, singer Falu Shah, Fashion Designer Payal Singhal and this year the incredible Raja Kumari.
Anya Thakur is an award-winning teen celebrity journalist and UN Women advocate. As a champion for the increased visibility of minorities, she is spearheading the mission to elevate women and diverse voices. In the Los Angeles Times and as Women’s Voices Editor for Medium, Arts & Entertainment Editor for Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global and an Arts & Entertainment journalist for LinkedIn, she celebrates and creates stories of impact and purpose.
She uses her platform to increase the visibility of women in media, having profiled a host of game-changers and influencers from Malala Yousafzai to Oprah Winfrey, Nobel Prize winners and UN Global Goodwill Ambassadors.
Her work has been nationally recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and National Student Poets Program in Carnegie Hall and her poetry has won a National Gold Medal as the most outstanding in the nation.
She works closely with the United Nations, UN Women, We Movement and the Jane Goodall Foundation to build a better future and empower girls globally.
ShePower, a global organization she founded in partnership with MetoWe, hosts self-defense, language and literature workshops to empower rural women in India such as in Delhi, Coimbatore, Mumbai, Manipur and is active in the United States and Canada. She leads humanitarian efforts with Myna Mahila to create opportunities for women and girls. Her women’s advocacy promotes UN Women’s mission to empower women and eradicate inequality.
As an advocate for UN Women and the first Indian teen to launch a UN Women campaign, she is honored to join the ranks of luminaries like Emma Watson and Angelina Jolie, known for both their body of work and their activism, and create a lasting legacy for this generation.
Through championing women’s voices, Asian American representation and global change as among the nation’s youngest to be involved with the UN on a global level, she has found her voice and aspires to help every potential leader find their own.